Movie review: Baz Luhrmann presents big, bold version of 'Gatsby'

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After Jay Gatsby has filled the living room of Nick Carraway's modest bungalow with cascades and crystal vases of orchids, he fears, "You think it's too much."

To which Nick responds, "I think it's what you want," as a backdrop for an ill-fated reunion.

Nothing is too much in "The Great Gatsby" by Baz Luhrmann, whether it's the 3-D, which nearly tips you into sensory overload, or the number of frenzied partygoers who spill from cars at Gatsby's nouveau-riche mansion or the size of the billboard with the watchful, brooding eyes along the Valley of Ashes where tragedy strikes.

'The Great Gatsby'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

  • Starring:

    Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton.

  • Rating:

    PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.

Like a superhero version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's American classic, filmed a few times before including with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, this "Gatsby" is bigger and bolder.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire who yearns for Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), living across the bay with her old-money, polo-playing, philandering husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

As luck and fate would have it, Daisy's Midwestern cousin, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), has rented the house nestled next to Gatsby's Long Island mansion.

He is the story's narrator, a witness to the excesses of the 1920s, the price of love found and lost, and the way some people "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Nick becomes the keeper of secrets, about Gatsby -- who lives amid a swirl of rumors about his upbringing, his involvement in World War I and his fortune -- and his love for Daisy, about Tom's affair with the wife of an impoverished mechanic and about events that ultimately leave three people dead.

"The Great Gatsby," which re-creates 1920s America in modern-day Australia, reunites Mr. Luhrmann with his star of "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet." His on-screen introduction of Gatsby is swoon-worthy.

After toying with the audience, the camera reveals Mr. DiCaprio in impeccably fitted tuxedo with a golden cast to his skin and hair and flashing "one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance ... that you may come across four or five times in life." Oh, and there are fireworks exploding behind him and a Gershwin classic, just for good measure.

As effortlessly charming as Mr. DiCaprio can be, it's when he digs a little deeper -- into nervous energy or white-hot rage -- that he shines.

Ms. Mulligan, an Oscar nominee for "An Education" and able to hold her own on screen against the likes of Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender, makes for a Daisy who is wounded by her husband's infidelity and yet unable to muster the strength to take control of her destiny or to own up to her actions.

Mr. Edgerton, who filmed "Warrior" in Pittsburgh in 2009, is all blue-blooded entitlement and masculinity, while Mr. Maguire's observer is so tenderhearted that we meet him in a sanitarium in the opening scenes.

Isla Fisher is Myrtle, the "other woman" from the wrong side of the tracks and Jason Clarke her exhausted husband who operates Wilson's Garage in the Valley of Ashes connecting Long Island and New York City. Elizabeth Debicki portrays Daisy's friend, the golfer Jordan Baker.

At 2 hours and 22 minutes, "Gatsby" feels about 10 minutes too long and a scene near the end didn't have as much of an emotional wallop as I would have liked (perhaps due to an omission from the novel) but the adaptation is dizzying in its detail, energy and look, courtesy of costume and production designer Catherine Martin. She is a two-time Oscar winner for the art direction and costumes for "Moulin Rouge" and also happens to be the director's wife.

Thanks, in part, to executive producer Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter who contributed to the soundtrack alongside other mainstream, hip-hop or indie rock artists such as Beyonce, Lana Del Ray and Jack White, "Gatsby" feels very contemporary. In fact, it seems like a "Gatsby" for a new generation, one that needs to be engaged at all times so no one reaches for a smartphone.

The racial attitudes obviously are rooted in the early 20th century but the Tiffany jewels, Prada dresses and Brooks Brothers suits could migrate to the red carpet today. And so could the story's themes about the American dream, how fleeting fortunes and friends can be, and the promise of the future and pull of the past.

In 3-D in select theaters and 2-D elsewhere.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published May 10, 2013 4:00 AM


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